In the engraving of Whitman that appears in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, his collar is open, showing off his neck and clavicle. Hat pushed back, chin raised, weight on one hip, wrist casually resting against it—Here I am, the pose says, “a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual.”
It’s no coincidence that Whitman pairs “kosmos” with flesh in this line from what would become “Song of Myself.” In the “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, Whitman instructs us to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” Throughout “Song of Myself,” body and soul are linked in unbearable ecstasy: “To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.”
But these erotic moments are often predicated on a body that is deemed healthy, fit—a nondisabled body.
Robert J. Scholnick points out that Whitman’s prose from the same period as the first edition of “Song of Myself” equates a healthy body with a healthy democracy, a sick body with a sick nation. To berate the politicians of his day for allowing a fatal drift toward civil war, Whitman calls them blind, deaf, scarred. Similar rhetoric appears in Whitman’s poems, as in “Song of the Road”: “He travelling with me needs the best blood.” What a limit to Whitman’s famous inclusiveness! Only some bodies are worth celebrating.
If we look ahead in Whitman’s life, we find a profound change. In “Specimen Days,” Whitman describes working as a nurse during the Civil War. Scholnick argues that here Whitman reveals a new empathy, shown in his wrenching depictions of wounded soldiers.
It’s also the case that Whitman assembled his narratives about helping the wounded and dying from notes and fragments after he had experienced several devastating strokes, resulting in partial paralysis. The writer Stephen Kuusisto argues that Whitman’s empathetic awareness takes a specific form, a mode of poetic prose, in Specimen Days, which he calls a “disability memoir.” It’s a language of flux and fragmentation, of constant change rather than fixity. This is the reality of all bodies, though those deemed disabled are often more keenly aware of it.
Whitman’s lived experiences, both on the battlefield and during the last years of his life, arguably changed his earlier views about health and disability. But I can’t help longing for that later, empathetic awareness in “Song of Myself”—for what Kuusisto calls “lyric momentum.”
I search the poem for traces of it.
“I do not talk of the beginning or the end,” the poet says. “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
Scholnick, Robert J. “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomas, The Modern Language Association of America, 2002, pp. 248–59.
Kuusisto, Stephen. “Walt Whitman's ‘Specimen Days’ and the Discovery of the Disability Memoir.” Prose Studies vol. 27, no. 1-2, 2005, pp. 155-162.